Category Archives: speculative fiction

Smörgåsbord

I have a number of collected links in my ‘blog fodder’ folder that haven’t made it into any posts recently, so here they are (starting with Belgian fast food ‘restaurant’ Quick’s ‘Darth Vader burger’, pictured above. This is real.):

Charles Barkley’s ‘White People Problems’ on SNL (and never mind that it’s effectively discussing class rather than race), implying that farm animal welfare doesn’t matter because human slavery existed. Huh.

And speaking of class: Mark Zuckerberg only eats (ate?) meat that he kills himself, and now the bison he shot is mounted in Facebook’s headquarters. Charming.

I just got my copy of Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson’s Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights, and I look forward to reading it stat, because I think Tyler Cowen’s dismissal of the concept of nonhuman animal citizenship deserves more serious consideration, in at least partially modified forms.

There are definitely some fascinating anthropological, literary, and cultural essays to be written on the emerging tradition of “Cooking Food Featured in Fantasy Novels”.

And I haven’t watched it yet, but this PBS video, “My Life as a Turkey,” looks really cool.

Finally, “The Narwhal Bacons at Midnight,” apparently. I’ll leave this last one up to you.

 

Dungeons and Animals

(Bear with me for a bit–this is about to get real nerdy.) This is a Thri-Kreen. They’re an insectoid race of sentient nonhumans from Dungeons & Dragons’ Dark Sun world. When I wasn’t playing a Mul psionicist, I liked to play Thri-Kreen warriors. Forget for a moment that I mostly like Thri-Kreens because they had double the usual number of hits per turn (notice the number of limbs), so I could game the system by souping up my character’s strength and fighting unarmed. Forget also that most of my friends who played D&D, Vampire, Mage, and Werewolf with me when we were growing up in high school have not subsequently engaged in any major way with animal studies. And bracket the question of how furries tie in to the question I’m about to ask–I don’t want to go there.

I suspect there’s a whole world of serious policy wonks out there who grew up playing D&D and other RPGs (here’s one, and here’s someone who’s probably transitioning between the two domains), but my question is this: does engaging with nonhuman sentient life broaden the horizons of our moral community in a way that works to deconstruct human exceptionalism and its corresponding anthropocentrism?

I can see various ways to answer this, depending on the person, so I’ll start with the person I know best: myself. I tell myself I’ve arrived at animal studies after a long and rigorous philosophical journey through an undergraduate monster of a thesis on Kant and the concept of progress, a subsequent affinity for anti-speciesist utilitarian consequentialism, and a realization that nonhuman animal interests were too often dismissed by otherwise caring, rational, and reasonable academics. But the fact is that I might care so much about animals because I was raised with dogs and rats, and I loved them. A third possibility is that my lifelong love of imaginative and speculative fiction has primed my empathy receptors in ever-broader ways. And the fourth possibility, which I hadn’t previously put into specific terms, is that RPGS in various forms–whether around the table with character sheets or on the computer)–can perform many of the same functions.

A possible counterfactual here is that I don’t actually have much of a gut sympathy for insect sentience, although I’m open to see more research. (And Mage was actually my favorite of the games we played, mostly for its open-endedness; there was a sense in which the boundaries of the potential was bounded only by imagination, creativity, and wit.) But like Ta-Nehisi Coates, I remember browsing various Monstrous Manuals, with an endless fascination for the diversity of sentient life. I just wonder how many gamers exclude all (actually existing) terrestrial nonhumans from the domain of the sentient…because they shouldn’t.

 

Brainstorming a Spring 2012 lit and politics course

(Image source) In addition to my Intro to Political Thought class at UMass Lowell, I’ll be teaching two new courses next semester: Intro to International Relations (also at UML) and Perspectives on Human-Animal Relations (at Tufts’ Experimental College). In the Spring, I’ve already approved a Global Food Politics course (my draft syllabus is Here) at UML, and am of thinking of submitting a similar proposal at the Excollege. After tearing through China Miéville’s The City and the City, though, I’m trying to craft a “politics and literature” course that would be sufficiently interdisciplinary to count as ‘experimental’ (i.e., not a ‘regular’ English department class). Here’s my hypothetical course description and book list; any book suggestions or thoughts on how I could proceed with this would be much appreciated!

Overlong potential title: “New Speculative Fiction and Political Philosophy: Stephenson, Le Guin, and Miéville on Anarchy and the State.”

Key Books: Snow Crash, The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, The City and the City. (To be interspersed with key works in modern political philosophy? I’d add four or five other books to this list, either from the list below or elsewhere.)

Other possible books or authors: Ubik (PKD), other words by Stephenson, The Windup Girl (Bacigalupi), The Left Hand of Darkness, Nick Sagan, Neil Gaiman, Dan Simmons, P.D. James/Anthony Burgess (Children of Men or The Wanting Seed), Alan Moore. (And, if I were to cut out the “new” part, lots of people/works come to mind: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppes, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, Melville’s Bartleby, Kafka, Orwell, Gogol, Asimov, Sturgeon…although some of these are political but not speculative.)

I’m not necessarily married to the idea of focusing on anarchy and the state, but I thought both Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and Miéville’s The City and the City did exactly what speculative political fiction is supposed to do: to allow us to see how our conception of human nature is structured at least in part by our surroundings, and what that means for the way we construct our political systems. I haven’t yet read anything else by Miéville, but I’m about to start either Perdido Street Station (or Cloud Atlas). Any suggestions for other topics, books, or authors that would fit in this category?

Edit (mostly for my reference): Facebook brainstorm comments here.